Seems Applicable

I’ve listened to much analysis of Trump’s win and while looking for something else ran across the following passage from Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, originally published in 1957. The following comes from pages 87-88 in my copy.

This seems to echo the idea that voters were discontent and willing to push for change at whatever cost:

But not all strata of society were equally exposed to traumatic and disorienting experiences. As we have seen, amongst the masses in the overpopulated, highly urbanized areas there were always many who lived in a state of chronic and inescapable insecurity, harassed not only by their economic helplessness and vulnerability but by the lack of the traditional social relationships on which, even at the worst of times, peasants had normally been able to depend.

Clearly we don’t have peasants in the United States, but if you swap out “peasant” for “working class” it seems to be just as applicable.

These were the people who were most frequently hit by disasters and least able to cope with them. And these were the people who, when faced with overwhelming problems and tormented by intolerable anxieties, were prone to seek messianic leaders and to imagine themselves as warrior-Saints.

Do we need to spell out the “overwhelming problems”, “intolerable anxieties”, and “messianic leaders” in the context of the 2016 election cycle?

The resulting phantasy could easily be integrated into the old eschatology derived from the Johannine and Sibylline traditions; and in this form it became a coherent social myth. The myth did not of course enable the helpless masses to overcome their dilemmas, and it often prompted them to courses of action that proved downright suicidal. But it did hold their anxieties at bay, and it did make them feel both immensely important and immensely powerful. That gave it irresistible fascination.

The myth in this case centered around Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” Voting for him won’t actually resolve much of the underlying  problems but doing something different rather than going with someone tied to “the establishment” makes people feel “immensely important and immensely powerful.”

So it came about that multitudes of people acted out with fierce energy a shared phantasy which, though delusional, yet brought them such intense emotional relief that they could live only through it, and were perfectly willing both to kill and to die for it. This phenomenon was to recur many times, in various parts of western and central Europe, between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries.

We’ll see how this plays out, whether Trump or his supporters carry it to the next level and are willing to initiate violence to maintain the movement’s momentum.


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